by Daniel R. Weiss

This week, our school has been abuzz as we prepared for our annual Curriculum Fair. We focused our attention, this year, on how music is incorporated into our school day. As you walk through our hallways you can see hear music and song emanate from each classroom as students are engaged in learning. This week even more so.

For the past two days, our students have been led in workshops by Matt Bar and Ali Richardson of Bible Raps. Our teachers noted how effective the use of rap and music can be in their own day-to-day curriculum.

As a school we focus on varied approaches to education and pedagogy. We realize that each student learns differently and that our role as educators is to help each child on their individual path to academic excellence. We realize that academic excellence can and should be different from student to student.

In each classroom, we see students who are learning on grade level. We see students who need intervention due to social, emotional, cognitive and learning disabilities. And we see students who need enrichment to allow them to continue to work above grade level. We also realize that a subject that may be a strength for one student is not necessarily a strength for another. And a student who has a strength in one subject may not have it in another.

This past week International Holocaust Remembrance Day was observed. Dr. Janusz Korczak, who together with the orphans of the Warsaw Ghetto, boarded the trains to the Polish Death Camp known as Treblinka, is seen as an advocate for children’s rights. He is quoted in the book, Loving Every Child: Wisdom For Parent, saying, “A child is a piece of parchment which has been thoroughly covered with minute hieroglyphics, only a very small part of which you will ever be able to decipher.” A later quote goes on to say, “Mentalities vary, and children can be steady or capricious, compliant or contrary, creative or imitative, witty or earnest, concrete or abstract; the memory can be exceptional or average; some are congenital despots while others have a wide range of interests.”

We must look at each child for who they are; not who they are compared to anyone else. There is a story of Reb Zusha, a Chasidic master, in which Reb Zusha was laying on his deathbed surrounded by his students. As he lay there, he was crying and none of his students were capable of comforting him. One student asked “Why are you crying? You, Reb Zusha are almost as wise as Moses and as kind as Abraham.” Reb Zusha answered, “When I pass from this world and appear before the Heavenly Tribunal, they won’t ask me, ‘Zusha, why weren’t you as wise as Moses or as kind as Abraham,’ rather, they will ask me, ‘Zusha, why weren’t you Zusha?’ Why didn’t I fulfill my potential, why didn’t I follow the path that could have been mine?”

Praying with Lior is a very impactful movie. It is a documentary about Lior Liebling, a boy with Down Syndrome and his journey towards becoming a Bar Mitzvah. What I love about the movie is Lior’s connection to Judaism through song and spirituality. His teachers had to find what moved him in order to help him better connect and to achieve the many successes that he was able to accomplish. What strikes me most is the impact that Lior had on those around him. When we teach with inclusion, we aren’t just impacting the life of one student; we are impacting the entire class. My own son has often shared with me what he learned and how he grew over the few years of having a boy with Down Syndrome in his class. It quite literally changed his life.

In the Mishneh Torah, a work by Maimonides, 1:8-9, we are taught that “Every [Jew] is obligated to study Torah, whether he is poor or rich, whether his body is healthy and whole or afflicted by difficulties, whether he is young or an old man whose strength has diminished.” The text goes on to talk about the importance of every job on the impact of a community. “The greater Sages of Israel included wood choppers, water drawers and blind men. Despite these [difficulties], they were occupied with Torah study day and night and were included among those who transmitted the Torah’s teachings in the direct line from Moses.”

February is Jewish Disability Awareness and Inclusion Month. According to their website, “The mission of Jewish Disability Awareness and Inclusion Month is to unite Jewish communities worldwide to raise awareness and champion the rights of all Jews to be included and to participate in all aspects of Jewish life like anyone else.”

The Shalva Band, is currently on the hit Israeli TV Show The Rising Star. The winner will represent Israel in the Eurovision Competition this year. In their song this past week, their first original song, written by Anael, one of the band members, we learn of Anael’s journey with disability and acceptance. The song describes looking in the mirror, seeing something good, something close, something worth loving. Just as impactful as I find the lyrics, I am struck by band member Tal, who has Down Syndrome and uses sign language for the song’s chorus. Click here to see the performance and here to learn more about how the song was written (in Hebrew).

Each person has a different ability in this world. Each deserves the opportunity to get a quality Jewish education. It is why we created a school in which each child is given an opportunity to learn, where each child is seen as an individual in the greater context of a large class. We intervene, we enrich, we include, we educate, we love. That is what makes our school such a great choice for so many Jewish families in Memphis.

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